By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
But the California that elected Reagan is a distant memory -- thankfully. For starters, the California electorate of 1966 was roughly 90 percent white; today, that figure is more like 70 percent. Second, with the Democrats now dutifully re-centered on issues like crime and welfare, it’s hard even to conceive of a wedge issue that could be used against them, while the GOP continues to hemorrhage support as a result of its marginal social-issue positions. Third, the Jarvis-era war on spending has clearly come to a halt. Even with the disproportionately Republican turnout last week, voters enacted bond measures for parks and new voting equipment, and approved 63 of 71 local school and community-college bond measures across the state -- including all seven that were on the ballot in Orange County. With growing public support for spending on schools, parks, roads and such, with continuing strong support for choice and environmental protections, it‘s hard to see how a fiscal and social conservative like Bill Simon has so much as a prayer.
II. The Duel of the Democrats
With California more firmly in the Democratic camp than any other major state, the real question of California politics is: What kind of Democrats hold the upper hand here? On the whole, the state’s major cities have liberal regimes at their city halls and send liberal delegations (both culturally and economically) to Sacramento and Washington. The Democratic representatives of suburban, exurban and rural districts (many of which are rapidly a becoming more Latino at the ballot box), however, have often tended to be more centrist on cultural issues and less labor-friendly on economic ones. Indeed, the balance of power in the state Legislature is often held by centrist Democrats from marginal districts, many of whom vote with big-business interests even when a majority of their constituents would prefer they side with workers and consumers. A Democratic Business Caucus has emerged in the Assembly, claiming 15 or 16 members (out of the Democrats‘ overall total of 50, and the Assembly’s overall total of 80), the most influential of whom, until he stepped down as speaker earlier last year, was the San Fernando Valley‘s Bob Hertzberg.
“For some time, business interests have meddled in select Democratic primaries -- in districts where they didn’t think the Republicans stood a chance -- to elect Dem-ocrats who will join Republicans in Sacramento to block progressive legislation,” Parke Skelton, the L.A.-based progressive Democratic consultant, told me last fall. Perhaps the most notable piece of blocked progressive legislation last year was Bay Area state Senator Jackie Speier‘s bill requiring credit-card companies to get signed approvals from cardholders before they could sell their records to other merchants. The bill died on the Assembly floor when business-funded Democrats sided with Republicans against it.
Not surprisingly, there was a growing sense within the Legislature’s Progressive Caucus that it needed to become a more effective force, as Skelton put it, “to keep the Chamber of Commerce from having disproportionate influence in picking Dem-ocratic nominees.” Indeed, many of the state‘s leading energy, telecommunications and financial firms had formed PACs that were waging independent-expenditure campaigns on behalf of their candidates in Democratic primaries. Last fall, the progressives decided to answer back.
In an effort spearheaded by Westside state Senator Sheila Kuehl, two dozen members of the Progressive Caucus pledged to make $3,000 contributions to up to eight liberal candidates for open Assembly seats in last week’s primary. On a parallel track, Skelton met with leaders of the California League of Conservation Voters, the California Nurses Association and the state consumer attorneys group to form the California Alliance, which would wage independent-expenditure campaigns on behalf of those same candidates. The California Alliance would join a pre-existing independent-expenditure PAC -- the Opportunity PAC, funded by the state Service Employees International Union as well as the state‘s three largest school-employee unions -- in the effort to fund progressive candidates.
Skelton and Co. were responding not only to the challenge of the business PACs but also to the opportunity created by the new reapportionment. As crafted by state Senate leader John Burton, the longtime San Francisco liberal, the plan essentially eliminated marginal districts. Democratic congressional and legislative districts became more Democratic, Republican districts more Republican. And primaries, accordingly, became a lot more important -- especially since term limits mean that one-third of all Assembly seats are open every two years.
Totally beneath the radar screen of California’s media, then, last week‘s Democratic primaries featured a classic shootout between business and labor (or more precisely, labor as the lead player in a red-green alliance). And by Wednesday morning, it was clear that labor had come out unambiguously on top. Four of the five Assembly candidates backed by the California Alliance prevailed, as did two of the three backed by the Opportunity PAC. Not all these victories marked a leftward shift, since some of the outgoing incumbents were also progressives, nor did the defeats necessarily signal a shift rightward, for the same reason. There were also some elections -- notably L.A. City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas’ defeat of legislative aide Mike Davis for the seat now held by outgoing Assemblyman Rod Wright -- that none of these groups involved themselves in, but nonetheless resulted in a switch to a more liberal representative.